Only way is up for ‘exceptional’ Con O’Callaghan
With great wins for Cuala and Dublin in 2017, the hurler and footballer has earned a break
Cuala’s Con O’Callaghan in action against St Martin’s in the Leinster Senior Hurling Club Championship semi-final at Parnell Park, Dublin in November. Photograph: Oisin Keniry/Inpho
It went around on social media pretty quickly on Sunday evening. The list of Con O’Callaghan’s winnings in 2017 isn’t hard to remember but, viewed in its entirety, makes impressive reading.
All-Ireland club hurling.
Leinster under-21 football.
All-Ireland under-21 football.
Leinster senior football.
Young Footballer of the Year.
As a footballer he was always on the way up. Captain of the Dublin minors, he was marked out as a certainty for senior promotion, but his hurling profile only sidled out of the shadows at the end of last year’s Dublin championship. In Leinster he caught fire quickly, shooting four goals in his first match and ending the provincial campaign with six and the province’s Player of the Championship award.
It seems quaint now but Dublin’s football management was a bit anxious that Cuala’s All-Ireland run early this year might hold him back, as he wouldn’t be available for league matches to help him acclimatise.
By the end of last summer’s Leinster championship he had been named man of the match in the final win over Kildare, in which he had scored 12 points, six from play, only a slightly under-hit shot spoiling what would have been an impeccable display. The All-Ireland run-in featured goals in the semi-final and final.
Back with Cuala: the footballers lost the quarter-final against St Jude’s for what would be O’Callaghan’s only knock-out championship defeat of the year. His year has been pretty much around the clock between club and county.
Sunday’s Leinster final came and went with an inevitable goal, and two points, but it wasn’t his most dominant display of the championship, and it wouldn’t be surprising were he feeling the effects of it all.
Nonetheless, he denies that he’s tired. “No, no, when you keep winning you’re fine,” he says. “The body doesn’t feel it too much so I’m feeling fine.”
Speed and touch
His game has been built on speed and touch but it has been noticeable that, physically, O’Callaghan has become more imposing – at one point in the second half of Sunday’s match shouldering a Kilcormac-Killoughey defender into a heap. Even on winter pitches his pace remains a weapon. As Tomás Codd, manager of St Martin’s, who lost to Cuala in the semi-finals, put it: “He’s unbelievable – he looks fast beside fast fellas.”
Cuala manager Mattie Kenny made the point all managers make in such situations.
“Look, obviously I don’t like individualising players or speaking about individual players too much, but Con is an exceptional sports guy, an exceptional hurler and an exceptional footballer. He’s after having an exceptional year.
“He’s a very, very grounded young lad. He’s played a number of matches; he’s in peak physical condition. From a hurling point of view we only have to work on the skills of the game with him so he doesn’t have to do any physical training as such. I think when they’re talking about physical miles on the clock and that sort of thing, it’s the training, training, training really that can get to you.”
He backed up his instincts on this by giving his team the summer off once the Dublin championship went into abeyance.
For O’Callaghan, though, it appears that the season has been non-stop, but he says that the slog pays off eventually, even for a team that is heading into a third calendar year unbeaten in championship apart from a group defeat by Ballyboden last spring.
“I suppose it feels like it hasn’t stopped since last year. It’s just gone straight in from March. We’ve been training the whole time. It took us a while to get back up to speed but we’re just delighted to get back [to the Leinster final] and to win.
“We kind of struggled a bit in Dublin. We struggled to get back to the level that we were at last year. You’d expect that but each match we kind of grew in confidence and we got a bit of energy back from playing week to week. Since then we’ve been motoring well and giving good performances.”
There will be the opportunity to take a break over the holiday season before the All-Ireland semi-finals take place. If Cuala are favoured to beat surprise Galway champions Liam Mellows in the semi-final, there will be no such consensus about the final, with their predecessors as champions Na Piarsaigh from Limerick on the other side of the draw with Slaughtneil, who Cuala beat in last season’s semi-final.
Mattie Kenny was asked could O’Callaghan improve as a player.
“As a player if you think you’ve arrived then you’re dead in the water, aren’t you?” he replied. “Con, I’m sure every day he goes out, every day he gets up, he’s going to see what he can do to improve himself. The guy is only 21 years of age – he’s only a young lad really yet. He’s got six, seven or eight years at his peak in front of him, up until his late 20s.
“At that time, every day he plays, whether it’s in football or hurling, he’s going to be gaining experience, coming up against different situations, different markers, and he’ll be figuring out ways of how to work around that. So can he improve? Yes, of course he can.”
Words of warning to future opponents and a matter of frustration for Dublin hurling manager Pat Gilroy, who has to accept that the player will continue to focus exclusively on football at inter-county level.